Reading: Ephesians 3:5-6
Tell me,Â what is the difference betweenÂ Christmas and Epiphany?
Say to anyÂ Christian: â€œItâ€™s Christmas next week!â€ and they will know exactly what youÂ mean. Say to most other Christians: â€œItâ€™s Epiphany next week!â€ and they willÂ mostly look blankly at you.
Funny thingÂ is that the festival of Epiphany was celebrated long before Christmas was everÂ thought of. Historically speaking, Christmas â€“ at least as we know it â€“ isÂ actually quite a recent development.
We mightÂ have assumed Christmas was one of the oldest Christian festivals there was, butÂ actually all of the great traditions we associate with Christmas only cameÂ along in the mid 1800s. The singing of Christmas carols was only revived aroundÂ then. The Christmas tree only became popular in the British Empire after it wasÂ introduced to England by Prince Albert â€“ the German born consort of Queen Victoria. SendingÂ Christmas cards and giving gifts has only gradually become popular from aroundÂ the turn of last century. And Father Christmas â€“ the fat happy man in the redÂ and white suit â€“ only became highly popular in his present form in the 1950s.
Christmas asÂ a festival was first celebrated only towards the end of the period of the earlyÂ church, when a Christian Roman Emperor wanted to Christianise a pagan RomanÂ festival called Saturnalia. Because this festival happened in the calendarÂ fairly close to Epiphany, it was nominated as a festival specifically celebratingÂ the birth of Jesus. And it grew from there and has gradually taken over fromÂ Epiphany ever since.
ButÂ Epiphany started as a festival of the Christian Church. The word Epiphany meansÂ â€œdisclosure or revelation or unveilingâ€, and the purpose of the festival was toÂ celebrate not just the event of Jesusâ€™ birth, but what it actually means forÂ the world; what its significance and importance is.
And this isÂ exactly what Paul was on about in this reading from Ephesians 3 â€“ theÂ revelation or unveiling of Godâ€™s great plan for the redemption of the wholeÂ world. This is more than just the BethlehemÂ story. This is more than shepherds and angels and the manger and the star inÂ the East. Epiphany is the whole unfolding of Godâ€™s wonderful through Jesus,Â including the baptism of Jesus (that we will celebrate next Sunday), hisÂ miracles, his healings, his teaching, his cross and his resurrection, andÂ importantly, his ascension.
ThisÂ unfolding plan does not just take place in New Testament times, but alsoÂ throughout the whole Old Testament. Jesus Christ is not just the last phase ofÂ Godâ€™s plan. He is the key to the whole thing. The arrival of Godâ€™s Son in theÂ world as a human being is the key that unlocks and reveals and makes clear andÂ explains the whole mystery of Godâ€™s plan that has been unfolding ever since theÂ dawn of creation. The birth of Jesus is the great epiphany â€“ the last piece inÂ the jigsaw that suddenly makes the other pieces fall into place, the finalÂ drawing away of the veil that reveals at last what you could only see vagueÂ hints of before.
Paul saysÂ â€œin former generations this mystery has not been made known to humanity, as itÂ has now been revealed to His holy prophets and apostles by the Spiritâ€.
Jesus isÂ the key that unlocks what God has been doing for all these millennia: the SonÂ of God in human form. He is the only and the perfect redeemer for the world.Â The human race has been lost in sin, and its ultimate result, which is death.Â The only answer to this plague is one who can deal with our sin and with deathÂ and conquer them finally through his own death and resurrection for theÂ forgiveness of our sins. The only answer is in the one who shares Godâ€™s divineÂ nature and power to break the death-grip of sin, and who also truly shares ourÂ human nature in order to truly take on himself our sin and our death andÂ release us for eternal life.
This is theÂ final opening up, the final epiphany of what God is doing â€“ hidden and secretÂ from past ages, but made clear now in Christ. Read the Gospel readings for theÂ rest of the Epiphany season and you see how Jesus progressively throughout hisÂ ministry unfolds the reality of who he is and what he is doing, throughÂ miracles and signs and teaching, and finally of course through the ultimate climaxÂ of the eternal plan; his passion, death and resurrection.
Here atÂ last is the fulfilment of everything the prophets have been saying in agesÂ past, the completion of the Old Testamentâ€™s story, the salvation and restoration not just of Israel, but (as PaulÂ says in verse 6) of all the nations (the Gentiles) as well, including us ofÂ course. This is the Gospel â€“ the good news for the whole planet.
And thisÂ season of Epiphany is a great time to read the Bible and learn and grow in yourÂ understanding of this amazing Gospel and how it unfolds through time. And IÂ would like to invite you to do just that â€“ look ahead and read the BibleÂ readings listed for this season. It will open up your understanding.
ChristmasÂ is wonderful, but one of the things that becomes a problem for us in the churchÂ at Christmas time is that we tend to lose our focus a bit â€“ itâ€™s all become very cuddly and cosy in theÂ stable. And we tend to get stuck at Bethlehem.Â We see the babe lying in a manger. We hear the story of the journey to Bethlehem and the shepherds visited by angels and told toÂ go to Bethlehem and the wise men coming to Bethlehem. And so at ChristmasÂ time we too go to Bethlehem,Â and sadly many Christians stay there and never leave. This story warms us andÂ tugs at our heart strings. But thereâ€™s more isnâ€™t there. We need to leave theÂ stable and move on to Epiphany.
Why was Jesus born? As one carol puts it,Â Jesus was â€œborn that man no more may die,Â born to raise the sons of earth: born to give them second birthâ€.
EpiphanyÂ takes us further than Bethlehem.Â It does not leave us at the manger; it takes us also to the cross, where ourÂ sins were paid for once and for all. It takes us to the empty tomb where JesusÂ Christ rose to give eternal life to all people. It takes us â€“ each of us â€“ toÂ the place of our â€œsecond birthâ€, to the baptismal font, where we Jesus makesÂ his forgiveness and salvation ours.
And this isÂ where Epiphany happens in each of our individual lives. This is where theÂ manger and the cross and the empty tomb all converge to change our individualÂ personal destinies. This is where we meet Jesus. This is where he reveals hisÂ plan for our lives, His plan to forgive and renew and recreate us for this lifeÂ and the next
And JesusÂ reveals Godâ€™s plan for us every time we return to our baptism by confessing ourÂ sins and receiving His forgiveness, every time we come to receive His body andÂ blood, every time we open and read and hear His Word.
Jesus is atÂ work in our life everyday. Your life is in fact a mini-Epiphany, because HisÂ grand plan for us is unfolding in our life minute by minute. Jesus is calling us to grow in our knowledgeÂ of him and in our relationship with him, calling us to grow and to move and to serve, and more and more revealÂ his light to others around us, his we become more like him, as our lives revealÂ and unveil him to the eyes of others.
And so itâ€™sÂ time to leave Bethlehem.Â Itâ€™s time for Epiphany. Because Jesus Christ wants to reveal his plan forÂ saving the world not only to us, but through us to the whole world.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Pastor Stephen Pietsch